A Problem and a Promise: Diversity in the Written Histories of Leeds

Earlier this year I spoke as part of the Heritage Show + Tell programme at Leeds Central Library. My subject was what I see as a problem in the historiography of Leeds – a lack of diversity, a sense of some stories and experiences not forming part of the mainstream narrative of the city, or in some cases not being recorded at all – and the promise engendered by that gap: the exciting possibility of filling that need with a new history of Leeds. What follows is an expanded version of that short talk.

Leeds is fortunate enough to be the subject of at least four modern written histories. Each is invaluable in its own way: Steve Burt and Kevin Grady’s The Illustrated History of Leeds is the most densely researched and probably the closest we have to an authorised, ‘civic’ history; David Thornton’s The Story of Leeds offers the most readable narrative; the 1980 volume edited by Derek Fraser, A History of Modern Leeds, provides scholarly essays on a range of periods and subjects; and W.R. Mitchell’s A History of Leeds is a useful short introduction.

And that is only counting those books published within the last half-century. Not included in that gang of four are earlier works such as Edward Parsons’ The Civil, Ecclesiastical, Literary, Commercial, and Miscellaneous History of Leeds (1834); J.S. Fletcher’s Leeds: The Story of a Town (1919), and, of course, Ralph Thoresby’s 1715 ‘classic’, the Ducatus Leodiensis. As well as these general histories are the innumerable articles published in authoritative journals, most notably in the regular volumes of The Publications of the Thoresby Society[1] and versions of the Leeds story available on institutional websites such as Discovering Leeds. Taken together, these texts constitute the standard version of Leeds’ history; the version most people will be familiar with, and the usual starting point for anyone wanting to find out more about the city, and their place within it.[2]

The ‘problem’ of the title, however, is that, despite this range of histories available to students of Leeds’ past, I would argue that there is still something missing in this literature, namely a history that tells a much wider and more diverse range of stories than those current standard accounts, which – for the most part – recycle the same set of personalities and events, anecdotes and perspectives, themes and subjects: the 17th through 19th-centuries; Ralph Thoresby, John Harrison, Edward Baines (Senior and Junior), John Marshall; the textile trade, the ‘gentlemen merchants’, the industrial revolution, back-to-back housing, working-class ‘squalor’.[3]

That criticism is not intended to decry those books and their authors – space is clearly limited in any printed volume, and there is a need for narrative coherency – merely to point out that there is certainly space on the shelves for an additional history; one that presents stories and perspectives not otherwise captured or which are, at the very least, inadequately represented in those previous histories. That is to say: a history of Leeds that, in varying degrees, complements, revises or updates those standard narratives.

I am specifically thinking here of narratives and histories centered on issues of sexuality, gender, ethnicity, class and (alternative) culture. Such histories – exploring what we might call the ‘non-standard’[4] aspects of Leeds and its past – already exist, of course. Examples, which have greatly influenced my thinking here, would include Melody Walker’s A Journey Through Our History, which brilliantly captures the community strength and resilience shown in the first generation of African-Caribbean settlers in Leeds; inclusive community histories such as A Little Bit of History: Words and Photographs from Little London Residents Past and Present, compiled by Andrew Coley and Hannah Carey; recent theses deposited in Leeds Central Library, such as Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s The Experience of First-Wave Female Immigrants From Pakistan to West Yorkshire, 1960-80 and Tom Woolmore’s work on Chapeltown in the 1980s; documentaries from The City Talking on music and fashion in the modern city; so much of what the Independent Leeds newspaper does; the Leeds sections in Daniel Rachel’s Walls Came Tumbling Down, alongside Alice Nutters’ My Generation, both of which hint at what a history of the 1970s and ’80s Leeds underground might look like; a recent Wikipedia article exploring the history of LGBT culture in Leeds; Pavillion’s work on migrant textile workers; and other projects exploring lesser-known aspects of Leeds, its communities and their histories.[5]

All of which is vital and pioneering work. What I think is needed, however, is a popular history that brings together narratives of the sort just described, in an accessible format (e.g. a mass-market paperback, rather than a prohibitively expensive academic textbook[6]) – and which actively[7] frames those narratives in the context of what we might call a ‘new modern history of Leeds,’ where ‘modern’ is defined as a history that very consciously foregrounds, highlights – and celebrates – the diverse range of perspectives and experiences lived by the people who have called Leeds their home.[8]

But why is it important that stories of this sort are brought together rather than continuing to exist separately? My view is simply that isolated examples of ‘against the grain’ historical investigation – as valuable as they are – do not have the public reach and impact that a book bearing the weight and authority of a comprehensive title like ‘The Illustrated History of Leeds’ clearly does (to take one example – and with emphasis added).

That is to say: those books and other institutional texts identified as forming the ‘standard’ written history of Leeds cumulatively act to define the generally accepted parameters of ‘the history of Leeds’[9]: when certain stories are excluded from those monographs, or under-represented at any rate, such exclusion risks giving the impression that the study of some communities and individuals, perspectives and experiences, is a much less valid – possibly even invalid – area of exploration than, say, the continued recycling of the same topics from the 17th,18th and 19th-centuries.[10]

What we need to remember here though, of course, is that ‘the history of Leeds’ as defined by those standard histories is a field of study which, in actuality, only ever comprises a subjective selection of stories given coherency and authority as ‘the history’ by being brought together and published in books whose very titles – and cover images – emphasise their intended authority, finality and setting of boundaries[11]. And that such (more-or-less) conscious prioritising of certain subjects, themes, people, events, and places can always be revised, challenged and even subverted[12]. That is to say: we can – indeed, should – always conceive of continually new or different ways to tell ‘the story of Leeds’ in its entirety.

This is what the ‘history of Leeds’ looks like, as defined by the ‘standard’ narratives

This, then, is the ‘promise’ of the title: by bringing together such stories into one volume and presenting them in the way described, embedding such narratives into the public’s sense of what mainstream Leeds is, such a ‘new modern history’ – a “crucial intervention,” in the words of Sandeep Parmar – would start to redefine what ‘the history of Leeds’ is about and who it is for, sparking exciting new avenues of exploration by resetting that sense of what is and is not an acceptable arena of study or enquiry: the arrival, that is, at least in embryonic form, of a ‘history of Leeds’ that is relevant to the 21st-century and truly for – and about – everyone.[13] How to practically achieve that goal is, of course, much harder to establish – and on which another post is forthcoming.

October 2017

[1] The Thoresby Society being the main local history society for Leeds – named for the same Ralph Thoresby who wrote the aforementioned Ducatus Leodiensis.

[2] We might also think here of the Civic Hall Banqueting Suite and the names prominently displayed there as presumably representing ‘the best’ of Leeds and the surrounding area: Phil May, Martin Frobisher, Richard Oastler, Richard Bentley, Benjamin Wilson, Thomas Denison, Benjamin Gott, John Fowler, Joseph Aspdin, John Green, and William Congreve: all white, all male, and all born prior to 1900. Of course, this is not a ‘living’ list and reflects the attitudes of the early 20th-century, rather than those of today; a close reading of Blue Plaques in the city, however, reveals a similarly narrow approach – albeit one with slightly more diversity than the Banqueting Suite selection.

[3] All the histories mentioned here take the 17th, 18th and 19th-centuries as the core periods of Leeds’ past. That’s fair enough, of course – the cloth trade and the Industrial Revolution are central to the development of the city, and everything that comes after – but that continued focus is possibly at the expense of hearing other stories and voices. Derek Fraser’s A History of Modern Leeds, for example, focuses almost entirely on the 19th-century and contains very little material that would meet most people’s definition of ‘modern’ – even taking into account the 1980 publication date and accepting that the professional historian may define ‘modern’ very differently to most.

[4] To be clear: this is not to suggest that there is an objective standard, or centre, to Leeds and its past, only that there is a subjective, authored, perspective that has been framed as the standard through its repetition in authoritative texts and institutional spaces.

[5] Fiction is also a good source of non-standard approaches to Leeds and its past. See, for example, The Book of Leeds (2006), edited by Maria Crossan and Tom Palmer, and 365 Leeds Stories, compiled by Alison Andrews and Matthew Bellwood (2015). The wider 365 stories project is essential, too.

[6] See this book, for example: a fascinating approach to the modern city – but with none of the wider public appeal likely to redefine notions of what does and does not count as Leeds’ history. No doubt much of the work highlighted here as lacking in the standard histories of Leeds is taking place in the academy, but the point is that it remains, for the most part, ‘locked’ to the wider public (whether through cost or restrictive access policies). As such, it almost certainly does not register with the impact of the Publications of the Thoresby Society, or any of the books named in the first paragraph of this piece.

[7] It would be such active framing that would distinguish such a proposed book from the admirable Aspects of Leeds series, which does – to its immense credit – include possibly the most diverse set of narratives and stories currently available in the historiography of Leeds.

[8] As Julia Kingsford said of plans for a new literary journal that will showcase UK black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) writers, such a text would “be for all under-represented writers – of colour, disability, working-class, LGTBQ-plus, and anyone who feels their story is not being told properly.”

[9] As with all culture, we should always ask: “defined by who?” See, for example, Brit Marling’s recent article for The Atlantic, where she perceptively notes that “Straight, white men tend to tell stories from their [own] perspective.”

[10] R.J. Morris’ comment in his incisive 2008 lecture for the Thoresby Society, ‘Whose Time and Whose Place,’ is essential in understanding the ways that institutionally-approved histories work to define – and, in many cases, limit – the accepted parameters of a given historiography: “The Publications of the Thoresby Society have a long prestigious history, but with one or two exceptions there is nothing beyond 1920.”

[11] With the caveat that more diverse institutional narratives do exist – most importantly, the City Museum’s ‘Leeds Story’ gallery and the Leeds Tapestry, on permanent display at Leeds Central Library.

[12] Although it’s worth stressing that this is much less about pointing out the negatives of those standard histories – although an awareness of what’s lacking in those texts is, of course, central to this thesis – and much more about the positive possibilities of what could be done to expand and build on that core narrative.

[13] Again, to be clear: such a new history would exist in the gaps of the current general histories and would not replace them entirely – that ‘everyone’ includes the stories and narratives already represented in the ‘standard’ histories.

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